Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 31

On February 11, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov announced the start of a large-scale guerrilla war against Russian troops throughout Chechen territory, including those regions already under the control of federal forces, but emphasized that he opposes terrorist acts against Russian cities. Maskhadov’s announcement coincided with Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s announcement of the start of a full-scale counterterrorist operation against Chechen fighters in the breakaway republic’s southern mountains (Radio Ekho Moskvy, February 11; Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 12).

It is difficult to see Maskhadov’s declaration as anything other than empty. During both the 1994-96 and the current Chechen military campaigns, the Chechens have used strictly guerrilla methods, including ambushes on mountain roads and from ruined buildings and taking hostages. Thus Maskhadov’s announcement means simply that the Chechens plan to continue fighting just as they have been. This explains why the Kremlin’s indifferent reaction to Maskhadov’s statement was probably not feigned. Indeed, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Acting President Vladimir Putin’s pointman on Chechnya, said on February 11 that Moscow is reacting calmly to Maskhadov’s threat of a large-scale guerrilla war in Chechnya and beyond the republic’s borders. In his words, the weaker “the bandits” become, the more intense there propaganda campaign becomes. Likewise, Valery Manilov, first deputy head of the armed forces’ general staff, called Maskhadov’s threat a “bluff,” and said that the federal forces are strengthening their forces in the mountains in preparation for the third stage of their counterterrorist operation. In addition, he said that 1,458 Russian servicemen had been killed and 4,495 wounded since the start of military operations in the North Caucasus on August 2, 1999 (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 12).

What is interesting about Maskhadov’s announcement is that it makes it clear that the Kremlin will not enter into negotiations with him. Yastrzhembsky said on February 11 that Putin and his administration do not support continued contact with Maskhadov. This extends what Putin has already said: that Maskhadov had become a puppet in the hands of terrorists and that negotiations with him were out of the question (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 12).

Meanwhile, the Russian army is continuing its operations in Chechnya’s mountains. Federal forces reportedly took the strategic town of Serzhen-Yurt in the Vedeno Gorge, from which Chechen field commander Khattab previously ran a terrorist training camp. The taking of Serzhen-Yurt means that the federal forces now effectively control the Vedeno Gorge, which was one of the main Chechen guerrilla bases following the fall of the Chechen capital. To minimize losses among Russian servicemen, the military commanders are relying on airstrikes. Over the last twenty-four hours, the Russian air force has launched seventy missions around Chechnya, including bomb attacks aimed at the Argun Gorge, where the main rebel forces are currently concentrated. Russian planes reportedly hit three concentrations of Chechen fighters and three mountain bases. The air force is using highly destructive ordnance, including fuel-air explosives (Radio Liberty, Russian agencies, February 13).